“And We're Off! - Beginning the Journey to Machu Picchu” by Scout, Connecticut, Senior
After a few busy days in Cuzco, which encompassed a series of clinic visits, time with parents, perusing market stalls, and a number of emotional ups and downs, TTS (+ parents) once again prepared to hit the trail. Following lots of packing and repacking, at seven o'clock Saturday morning there was a pile of duffles, backpacks, and TTS girls ready and waiting to load the bus. After two and a half hours of windy roads and conversation, with the occasional stop to pick up another one of Puma's family members, we arrived at the trail head. Upon finishing up the last of the packing process, which included the loading of gear onto some 32 horses, our 40 plus collective feet began the steady uphill towards our first campsite set high in the mountains. [Don't forget to read the rest of Scout's post, which describes the end of the adventure!]
“Pumaisms” by Feyza, Iowa, Junior
“Today is the best day of our lives,” Puma would say at the start of each morning, motivating us to embrace the next 24 hours with enthusiasm and appreciation. Puma'a wise anecdotes, shamanic wisdom, love and positivity towards life, and wonderfully warm and compassionate crew contributed a special layer to the parent trip and our Machu Picchu visit, creating an unforgettable time.
Before our Inca adventure, Puma introduced us to his family referring to his son as his “latest reincarnation” and his wife as “the woman I have chosen to share my life with.” He demonstrated a shamanic ceremony, letting everyone set an intention for the coming days. During our trek to Machu Picchu , his crew provided elaborate three course meals, enchanting flute music while we hiked, and a supportive loving family atmosphere. Puma would share advice such as, “everything goes two ways” or “listen to yourself first, and last.” We were impressed with how the crew brought a few of their children and a baby who were all easy going and enjoyable to be with. One ritual Puma showed us during the Lares trek was a group activity to help us stay in the present. We would stand in a circle all holding hands and repeat “hampui”: while saying this, we would start with our hands up, and bringing them down, we emphasized the moment we were in. The whole group absorbed Puma's wisdom on life, medicine, and nature, diligently drinking avocado pit tea when they felt ill, or listening to Puma when he would say “we walk with Pachamama (mother earth) not on Pachamama.”
While at Machu Picchu, Puma educated us on Incan and pre-Incan history. Between his explanation on how the Incans moved massive rocks by blowing one hundred conch shells, to showing us his favorite spot where one can stand on a small rock and feel as though they can fly like a condor, we left Machu Picchu satisfied. Despite the thousands of tourists and hundreds of guides, Puma had shared with us an experience no one else could, creating another day that was “the best day of our lives.”
“Striking Spirituality” by Allison, Montana, Sophomore
Two days before we left for our two day long backpacking trip on the Lares Trek, we went on a spiritual journey with our guides. The ceremony that they performed was to ask for permission from the mountain spirits to climb the pass and ask for good fortunes on our upcoming trek. Two of our guides initiated the ceremony by placing out offerings such as cookies, chocolates, money and seeds. After that, they gave each of us three coca leaves to which we stated our intentions and hopes for our upcoming journey. The three leaves represent the condor, puma, and serpent which are animals that portray one's spirit, physical body and consciousness, respectively. We did a similar ceremony at our first stop on the trail, but we only stated our intentions and placed our leaves in a creek running by the resting place.
Trudging up the steep trail, a thought flitted through my head of, “I can't do this.” Just then, mystical music floated to my ears making me feel lighter and more encouraged to move forward. I searched for the source of the music and saw one of our guides playing a beautifully crafted wooden flute. The music carried our group forward up the steep, rocky terrain and gave a sense of hope and peace.
Over the course of the trek, I received a plethora of information about the sacredness of this trek from Puma and our other guides. On our second and last day, we climbed about a 15,000 foot pass, the highest elevation we have experienced this entire trip. At our first break, Puma told us each to find a small rock and carry it to the top of the pass. When we reached the top, we were instructed to leave our rock there with a wish, intention, or something we want to leave behind. As everyone trickled onto the mountaintop, Puma explained how passes are like portals for your soul. When you are on one side of it, you are still your old self, but when you cross over, you become a new person - the person you want to be. Also on the top of the pass is one of three crosses in the entire mountain range which stretches from Chile all the way to the North American Rockies. The cross was brought up by the Spaniards, is dressed in colorful clothing, and has a face with a crown on top. Puma described to us how native people of Peru wake up at 12 in the morning, do the entire hike in four hours and are at the top of the pass to see the sun rise over the sacred valley.
The entire trek was a truly magical experience. I felt like I was a part of something, something that had been sacred hundreds of years before I was born. Pre-incans, Incans, Quechua people, citizens of Peru and tourists have all climbed this phenomenal trek to feel the sacredness and spirituality woven into the valley.
“The Rhythm of Decadence” by Charlotte, Virginia, Sophomore
The encouraging trail of Puma's flute receded as a congratulatory chorus overtook its shrill notes. The sight of our campsite for the first night of our trek induced rejuvenated cheers, grateful sighs, and joyous high fives. The sea of red, blue, and tan tents set up by our abundance of arrieros along with the oblong dining tent dotted the green mountain's gentle slope. Our parade of thirty two horses, cook crew, and horsemen had preceded our arrival and prepared the campsite for our stay.
The initial euphoria of accomplishment gradually faded for TTS girls and their parents. We added base layers, wool hats, and extra socks as insulation. We set out sleeping bags onto firmly blown pads and ventured to the river to refill our water bottles. The guides set bowls of hot water outside to wash our hands. The evening on the Lares Trek proved chilly as we expected. I felt grateful for the close proximity of the dining tent. “The dining tent is always there to warm me up with hot chocolate,” Anne Fawcett related. Three long tables brimmed with boxes of tea, silverware, giant thermoses of boiled water, stools, tin cups, and bags of powdered milk. Cook crew served rounds of soup, platters of rice, vegetables, and chicken, and bowls of chocolate pudding. Sophie, chieflet for the day, proposed a dinner discussion of our favorite carbohydrates. Shivers disappeared as we passed steamy mugs and created bonds within our extended group. Although dimly lit by candles, the tent felt bright with a content but sleepy energy.
The morning arrived quickly and ensued with the guides' good morning calls. Parents and siblings stuffed their duffels and zipped them shut. Girls shoved clothes and gear deep into our lightened packs. Trays of bread and bottles of yogurt circulated the breakfast tables while more and more faces ventured into the tent. Puma's optimistic voice greeted us with his favorite words, “today is the best day of our lives.” Once duffels were stacked and ready to be loaded, the group gathered to leave. Parents outfitted with hiking poles and girls with tightly strapped packs departed to start the adventure of trekking with the promise of finding the lunch tent soon.
TTS' first glimpse at glamping (glamor camping) came as a surprise. Allie Stevens explained, “I have never heard of the term 'glamping' before, but I have been camping my whole life.” After the pure form of camping we partook in during the Santa Cruz trek, the Lares trek felt luxurious. From our downsized packs, plethora of guides, three course meals, and a herd of horses drooping with gear, the experience was decadent and less strenuous. With the circumstances and company of the parents, glamping provided a treat.
“Trekking Triumphs via Trail and Terrain” by Alizah, New York, Senior
We came to our first substantial stop at the base of a winding dirt road, where we swung the familiar weight of our packs onto our backs and helped the parents to do the same. With a mix of eagerness and apprehension, we began our ascent to the Lares Trek's pass. The uncovered dirt road soon gave way to a steep, forested trail along which the overhang of trees diligently shaded us from the intensifying sun. Our steps gradually became steeper as the trail climbed, yet the hum of conversation never quieted (though it was increasingly interspersed by panting). Our group – which now walked in single file as the trees framing our path grew closer together – stretched nearly a quarter mile back from start to finish. At each rare but warmly regarded plateau, we'd shed another of the morning's many layers, refill our water supply in the river that unfailingly flowed alongside us, and catch our breath just enough to articulate “BAM,” drawing the rest of the group's attention to the sweeping valleys, waterfalls, and cloud-tipped mountains surrounding us.
The next four hours of steady ascension pulled us out of dense forest into open valley views as the trail – now rockier but no less steep – wove along the periphery of the Lares trail. As we approached lunch, which proved more difficult to find than expected, we crossed back and forth over the river using improvised boulder bridges. Full and reinvigorated, we finished our post-lunch climb expediently and in good spirits, finally arriving at camp after a nearly seven hour day of hiking. Our tents, surrounded by towering boulders, sat just below our final destination of 15,800 feet, an elevation that threatened to put Santa Cruz's 14,250 feet to shame.
After an equally early morning, we left our extensive campsite behind and set off for the pass. In our steepest ascent yet, we gradually conquered the distance separating us from our goal; the knowledge that our final push would give way to a day of downhill made the seemingly endless switchbacks ahead less ominous. Finally, legs aching and cheeks pink, we reached the elevation-apogee of our trip so far.
After an obligatory photo, Nature Valley bar, and shamanic rock ceremony break, we began our descent, calling upon muscles that had been forgotten in our climb. The Trail's initial steepness never wavered, giving way to innumerable pants-staining butt-slides. Tentatively, we descended steep rock steps, frequently stopping to peel on and off rain ear as the sky vacillated between extremes. The downward sloping terrain, though daunting in its own way, allowed for conversation and trail games as the group's order reshuffled. Exhausted, we reached lunch, refueling in preparation for three final hours. Two sporadic rain showers, three lake sightings, and some not-so-graceful falls later, we finally arrived at the road that had been taunting us in the distance. Both exhausted and relieved, our group reunited, looking back at the eighteen miles we had come.
“Sick Days in Cusco” by Courtney, New Jersey, Senior
We looked at the vast and sunny city of Cusco from the tight balcony of the “Choco Museo.” As I sipped chocolate tea with my mother, I pictured myself on the Lares Trek with bruised hips, freshly blistered feet, and a queasy stomach. With another taste of my hot, flavorful beverage, I began to come to terms with the microscopic villain living in my intestines.
The day started lazily, when I rolled awake at 9:30 in the Royal Inka Hotel, dubbed as “The Parent Hotel,” by my TTS classmates and teachers. For breakfast my mother and I strolled across the Plaza to a quaint French bakery. We welcomed the day with warm croissants, blueberry jam, and fresh coffee. “What shall we do today?” my mother asked, as I savored my croissant. I shrugged, uneasy with the control I suddenly had over my schedule. After two and a half months of living with my high school, the concept of planning my own day felt foreign and strange.
It was decided that Heather F., the teacher that stayed back with us “sickies,” would take my mother and I to the local market. The smiling vendors at the market proudly displayed everything from vegetables to shaman tools in a maze of organized sections. The smell of fresh bread and juice hung in the air. With purchases of pottery and earrings, we exited the chaotic and colorful labyrinth. We wandered through the cobble stone streets, eventually ending up at “Jack's.” Lunch at Jack's consisted of hot sandwiches, caramelized banana pancakes, and the enormous mango frappe I ordered. With our stomachs and money belts full, we shopped around the streets packed with alpaca sweaters, sparkly earrings, colorful scarves, stylish bracelets, and leather purses. My and my mother headed back with our arms full of fuzzy sweaters.
When we returned to the Hotel, I felt a strange mix of exhaustion and appreciation. Lucky to be sick in a place as interesting and vibrant as Cusco. Before trudging up to our hotel room, my mother treated me to a haircut at the hotel's salon. With a quick scrub and an intense blow-drying session, I lost recognition of the girl with straight hair staring back at me. Having smooth and tangle-free hair was another strange concept that I hadn't encountered during TTS.
After a dinner of hot chicken noodle soup in the hotel dining room, I abruptly collapsed onto my giant bed. With my soft hair, new sweater, and grumbling stomach, I felt like a Peruvian princess with a parasite. Sick days in Cusco aren't so bad.
“Condors, clouds and civilizations” by Rebecca, Montana, Junior
Entering the gates into Machu Picchu, my preconceived notion of one of the seven wonders of the world was built on the photos I had seen on postcards and the images on my computer screen. Displaying my passport photo I, along with two-thousand tourists, entered the ancient Incan ruins for the day. The group divided into parents/siblings and students for our morning tour. The clouds covered everything past our foot-trail, groggily walking, camera in hand, while following our guide Puma, the mist cover laid over the land like a blanket. We paused to admire the scenery as Puma said, “Chicas don't ever wonder what heaven looks like-you are looking at it.” We continued along the tour, taking photos through ancient rectangular windows and pausing to learn about the significance of certain rocks or structures. At one point, Puma proclaimed it was his favorite spot in Machu Picchu: we stood overlooking the valley and towering mountain peaks protruding from the hillside was a small rock ledge. Every member in our group took turns standing with arms spread and feet staggered, overlooking the magnificent views. We felt the magnetic field while standing on the ledge. Through tiny quivers and shakes within our legs the feeling of unbalanced flight was attained. Next, with squinted eyes, we gazed upon a boulder that on the right side depicted a spectacled bear face. We each stepped up to admire the stone and then wrapped our arms around the bear's profile. A hug given to the cool piece of stone is supposed to heal the individual. Continuing along the trail and climbing up steep stone steps we learned that Machu Picchu is in the shape of a condor, a bird representing Andean spirituality. Puma stated that in order for each of us to be a fulfilled person we must travel with a part of the condor, symbolizing spirit, puma representing physical body and serpent depicting conscious mind. “Only when one reaches this state of happiness, can they be of best service to others.” As our tour came to a close we approached the “Facebook photo” viewpoint overlooking all of Machu Picchu. Group photos were taken with our seniors throwing sun-hats for a graduation picture. Personally, I was posing for the camera in front of centuries of civilization without realizing the magnitude held in the sights I saw. After the initial frenzy died down, I was able to go off in a small group and gaze in silence at the true splendor of the architecture the Incans created. In that moment, I felt alone in my thoughts although still surrounded by people of diverse backgrounds. The impact of Machu Picchu is dependent upon the viewer. Perceived through my own eyes, the power of Machu Picchu was an extraordinary experience and I would love for the opportunity to visit again in the future.
“Trains, Buses, and Cuzcan Afternoons – Our Journey Back” by Scout, Connecticut, Senior
Once again shouldering our bags, we began our lengthy procession back to the train station to board the Harry Potter-esque Inka Railroad tat would take us out of the Machu Picchu mist and back to the rest of Peru. Students filled their time with naps and reading, while parents slept and shared pictures or conversation. Almost two hours later, the TTS contingency emerged onto the sunny platform bleary eyed and a little disheveled, and headed towards the bus. Much like the train, the bus time was filled with napping. Interrupted only by a brief stop at a local chicheria to learn about the traditional fermented corn drink, and a fancy buffet lunch, we ascended the windy roads back to Cuzco. Upon arriving at the hotel, we said goodbye to Rick and Jennifer who would be home-bound that afternoon, and divided to conquer math classes, explore the markets and shops, or spend a final evening with parents. The journey to Machu Picchu concluded with good moods, unpacking, and a good night's sleep before beginning the next few days of classes.